North London flexes midfield power
Expectation took such a hard beating this week that at one point, concerned neighbors Custom and Destiny must have thought about calling the police. It wouldn't have taken them long to track down the assailants to North London, where Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have each emerged from the first leg of their Champions League matches with a massively against-the-odds lead over Barcelona and AC Milan respectively. Key in both victories was the fact that both teams packed a punch in central midfield.
Journalists who got to the superlatives store more than 10 minutes after the final whistle blew at the Emirates on Wednesday found the shelves bare: a bulk order of "towering" had gone on Laurent Koscielny and they were sold out of "sumptuous" after Andrey Arshavin's late winner, but it was those writing about Jack Wilshere who really filled their trolleys.
For Wilshere as for Arsenal, it's getting harder to say, "Wait and see." What has been evident all season in the Premier League has gained a degree of certainty from his second-half performance against Barca's trio of Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. Seeking to mitigate Arsenal's comeback by pointing to Barcelona's pass completion rate is flawed, but if that's your measure, Wilshere completed between 83 and 94 percent of his passes, depending on whose stats you go by.
It's fewer than most of the Barcelona team (and Cesc Fabregas), yes, but more decisive: Wilshere's first-time ball to Fabregas in the 83rd minute traveled only 12 yards but bypassed four nearby Barcelona players to set Arsenal on its way to a second goal. At one point earlier in the half, Wilshere carried the ball straight into the alley el trio magico closed to create 30 yards out, coolly laid it off to Fabregas, and continued into the space behind Barca to collect the return. His shot was a tame first-touch effort, but you could not fault such fearlessness.
The comparison with 1970s Arsenal hero Liam Brady has looked forced at times -- a bit like "the new Maradona," it's applied too early to decent young midfielders -- but is now virtually impossible to resist. Wilshere is not so pivotal to Arsenal as Brady was then, because Arsene Wenger's collective is better than Terry Neill's was -- mark Brady out of the game and Arsenal could be had. But like Wenger, Neill wanted to win in a certain style, and entrusted those plans to Brady, (also 19 in his breakthrough season of 1974-75 before Neil's arrival).
All the qualities that defined Brady's game -- lightness of touch, range of vision and passing, anticipation, unflinching forward drive with or without the ball -- are shared by Wilshere, who has a way of receiving the ball that instantly makes him harder to get off it. Just as Brady strove to add the tackling tenacity of his international coach, Ireland's John Giles, to his game, Wilshere says he aims to bring a hint of Patrick Vieira to his. He is already good enough that after England's Under 21s played Italy this month, coach Stuart Pearce talked about Chelsea's 17-year-old Josh McEachran as the new Wilshere.
When the team-sheets circulated in the hours before Milan vs. Spurs, the away side's partnership of Wilson Palacios and Sandro elicited a different kind of sigh. Arsenal had to overcome the best team in the world, but had almost everyone in its first choice team available. Between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho and a run at the Tottenham defense were two men who cannot get a game when Luka Modric (injury, bench) and Jermaine Jenas (suspended) are available.
Spurs signed Palacios from Wigan amid interest from United, which was shopping for an Owen Hargreaves type, raising fans' hopes beyond what the Honduran has generally produced since: clumsy, imperceptive performances. Sandro has had few opportunities to convince since arriving from Internacional in the summer. Exceeding expectations was far easier for this duo than for Wilshere; in the driving rain at San Siro, not getting sent off would have been respectable.
But they each deserve greater credit than to be told that they played better than anticipated: the partnership actually worked. Palacios protected his back four simply but expertly, like the big kid stationed to crump playground bullies as soon as they get within range of the nerds. Sandro played a similar intercepting role but has a finer forward eye, and it was his interception and pass that set Tottenham away for Peter Crouch's goal. He had started a little hesitantly, making a couple of ungainly tackles, and Palacios tired toward the end; their strengths will sometimes be unnecessary (and sometimes limiting) to Spurs' play against certain opposition, but it remains easier to see both playing a part in the season's run-in than a week ago.
While the Champions League has been hogging the spotlight -- Manchester City and Liverpool's scoreless Europa League ties did little to force themselves into center stage -- the FA Cup fourth round replay between Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers slipped by virtually unnoticed outside of England's northwest. And even there, fewer than 7600 fans (almost half the DW's previous lowest gate this season) turned up to watch Bolton win 1-0 thanks to a second-half Ivan Klasnic goal.
Klasnic's strike, after he'd missed two gilt-edged chances, added to Mark Davies' growing collection of assists a day after he'd signed a contract extension to 2015. The deal -- like Phil Jones' extended contract at Blackburn Rovers -- has barely registered on the week's news-Richter scale, but it's important that both midtable clubs have been able to secure such talented young players on a long-term basis. Even more so given that "the big clubs" are more alert to English talent now that there are squad requirements with regard to homegrown players.
Jones, a central defender turned defensive midfielder who is currently out injured, had previously attracted the attention of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. The injury, which will keep him out until at least next month, no doubt played a part in that attention remaining shy of a bid, but his willingness to commit is a boon for Rovers. Steven N'Zonzi's faltering, lightweight performance against Newcastle recently highlighted the difference that Jones, who is not quite 19, can make in the middle of the field, even if he still sees center-half as his ideal role.
Davies (who himself has been linked with United and Liverpool in the past) turns 23 today but broke in to Wolverhampton Wanderers' first team as early as 2005. His departure two years ago split Wolves fans; after he'd been out for almost two years with injuries, many were upset by the transfer request he submitted after recovering his fitness. Others felt that Mick McCarthy hadn't restored him to the side quickly enough to assure the player of his importance.
It may be telling that Davies expressed his pleasure at extending his Bolton contract by saying: "The manager believes in me and I feel like I'm part of his plans." And no wonder, because Davies is on the cusp of going from "promising" to just plain "talented," if he hasn't already. His intelligent movement and tidy passing make him and Stuart Holden an exciting match in the center, and the pair -- keeping Arsenal graduate Fabrice Muamba on the sidelines -- epitomizes Bolton under Owen Coyle.